Natalie Ruth Joynton
The only Jew in Mason County
by Keith Taylor
From the July, 2019 issue
There is a subgenre of the American memoir about city folks moving to the country and learning to live off the land. I enjoy these books, but I expect certain things. Loneliness, for instance, later supplanted by a sense of community. There's usually quite a bit of self-deprecating humor while the new arrival learns the rules of country living. In the end these books are often a testament to resiliency and perseverance.
Natalie Ruth Joynton's rural memoir, Welcome to Replica Dodge, has a couple of major elements that make it completely different from the genre. When she and her new husband find the house and land they want a few miles from their jobs at West Shore Community College outside Ludington, the land comes with a unique set of baggage.
Situated in a semicircle in the front yard, facing the house rather than the road, were nine buildings: a saloon, a bank, a church, a barbershop, a one-room schoolhouse, a general store, a jailhouse, a bunkhouse, and one "Lady's Emporium." Crafted of barn wood and capped with steel roofs, each seemed big enough to walk into--could we go inside?--I asked. Above it all loomed a sign that read Dodge City.
What!? Everything else about the place is perfect. But there's something Joynton and her husband find wonderfully surrealistic about the former owner's hand-built western town, so they begin their new life in rural Michigan overlooking Replica Dodge.
The second unexpected element is spiritual. All her life Joynton has been drawn to Judaism, even though she comes from a Protestant family and is married to a former Catholic, now atheist, physics instructor. While in graduate school at Purdue, she completed the years long process of conversion. Shortly after she finds herself in rural Michigan, "the only Jew in Mason County." When she begins her first Christmas season as a Jew, she finds life there particularly difficult:
Rabbi Kleinman had told me, "The crazy thing is, Ruth, if you complete...continued below...
your conversion, you'll probably know more about Judaism than many practicing today." ... [A]t the time his statement had sparked ... a vague hope that I could eventually fit in seamlessly. But he had been talking about the religion of Judaism. When it came to Jewish culture, a history that I could never claim, how could I hope to be anything but an eternal student?
This lack of a cultural base and her efforts to honor her new faith animate Welcome to Replica Dodge, and make it a deeply moving book.
Natalie Ruth Joynton reads from her book at Literati Bookstore on Monday, July 8. She'll be joined by two other writers with new books from Wayne State University Press, Lisa Lenzo and Elizabeth Schmuhl.
[Originally published in July, 2019.]
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